Intelligent Design

Guide dogs don’t know that their owners are blind

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These days, it is fashionable among science writers to claim that the difference between humans and other animals is one of degree. Well, here’s one clear-cut difference: only human beings are aware of what other individuals can see, while guide dogs appear to be blissfully unaware that their owners cannot see.

A 2008 study by the French anthropologist Florence Gaunet, titled, “How do guide dogs of blind owners and pet dogs of sighted owners (Canis familiaris) ask their owners for food?” (Animal Cognition, July 2008, 11(3):475-83) was the subject of a recent blog article in Discover magazine (Seriously Science, July 1, 2014). The design of the experiment was simplicity itself: Dr. Gaunet reasoned that if guide dogs understood that their owners were blind, then when they are prevented from accessing food that they were able to access previously, they should be less likely to gaze at the container where the food used to be stored and then at their owners’ faces, than dogs belonging to sighted owners. Instead, guide dogs should try to get their owners’ attention by resorting to non-visual cues. Surprisingly, however, Dr. Gaunet found that although some guide dogs did use auditory cues (such as licking their lips noisily) to get their owners’ attention when they were hungry, they were no less likely to use visual cues than dogs belonging to sighted owners. She concluded that while guide dogs were capable of learning new ways of getting their owners’ attention, they do not understand that their owner cannot see them. Here’s the abstract of her paper:

Although there are some indications that dogs (Canis familiaris) use the eyes of humans as a cue during human-dog interactions, the exact conditions under which this holds true are unclear. Analysing whether the interactive modalities of guide dogs and pet dogs differ when they interact with their blind, and sighted owners, respectively, is one way to tackle this problem; more specifically, it allows examining the effect of the visual status of the owner. The interactive behaviours of dogs were recorded when the dogs were prevented from accessing food that they had previously learned to access. A novel audible behaviour was observed: dogs licked their mouths sonorously. Data analyses showed that the guide dogs performed this behaviour longer and more frequently than the pet dogs; seven of the nine guide dogs and two of the nine pet dogs displayed this behaviour. However, gazing at the container where the food was and gazing at the owner (with or without sonorous mouth licking), gaze alternation between the container and the owner, vocalisation and contact with the owner did not differ between groups. Together, the results suggest that there is no overall distinction between guide and pet dogs in exploratory, learning and motivational behaviours and in their understanding of their owner’s attentional state, i.e. guide dogs do not understand that their owner cannot see (them). However, results show that guide dogs are subject to incidental learning and suggest that they supplemented their way to trigger their owners’ attention with a new distal cue.

Canine cognition researcher Clive Wynne claims to have come up with a case of a dog that knew its owner was blind and even used this knowledge to its own advantage. Professor Wynne described the case in a message he sent to animal researcher Professor Hal Hertzog (“Professor, Does My Dog Know I’m Blind?”, Psychology Today, December 5, 2010):

Hal, I was recently told a story by a dog trainer that is relevant to Leo’s question. [Leo was a caller on talkback radio who asked Professor Hertzog on air if he thought his dog knew he was blind – VJT.] She had “inherited” a dog from a blind lady who passed on to her. Soon after acquiring the dog, the trainer came downstairs to the kitchen. She was not terribly surprised to see the dog on the kitchen counter helping itself to some food that had been left out. What surprised her was that the dog, on hearing her footsteps on the stairs, did nothing to jump down. Instead the dog continued to eat! It was accustomed to the idea that just because a human was in the room, that did not mean that the human could detect her presence on the forbidden kitchen counter. This dog clearly knew what it meant for a human to be blind.

On the contrary, I would say that the case demonstrates precisely the reverse: clearly, the dog did not know what it meant for another human being to see. If it had known that, it would have jumped off the counter with alacrity when it heard its new owner’s footsteps on the stairs. The dog’s ability to take advantage of its former owner’s blindness was simply the product of conditioning: after years of not being punished by its owner for being in the kitchen, it finally lost its fear of helping itself to food that it found there.

In his article, Professor Hertzog mentions another suggestion, made by ASPA science advisor Steve Zawistowski, that whether dogs know their owners are blind might depend on whether the owner lost their sight suddenly or gradually. Once again, I would argue that if the dog possessed a “theory of mind” and was able to understood that its field of vision was different from its owner’s, then it should have been able to grasp the fact that its owner could not see, almost immediately. If it was able to adjust to a gradual loss of sight on the part of its owner but not a sudden one, that would indicate that its adjustment was due to conditioning, rather than an understanding of the fact that its owner can no longer see.

Canine ethologist Professor Stanley Coren, F.R.S.C., has argued that because dogs turn to their owners for advice by looking at their faces when confronted with a novel problem they have to solve, this indicates that dogs do have a “theory of mind.” But another expert, Ádám Miklósi, has pointed out that wolves, which are dogs’ closest relatives, don’t do this. It is hardly likely that dogs have a “theory of mind” while wolves don’t. What is more likely is that dogs have slowly evolved to interact visually and vocally with human beings, over the last 30,000 years. That’s why they often to their owners for advice when they need assistance.

What about the mirror test?

A baby exploring his reflection. Image courtesy of roseoftimothywoods and Wikipedia.

I should also mention that dogs, like most animals, do not recognize themselves in mirrors, even after repeated exposure to mirrors. Instead, they treat the image they see in a mirror as if it were another individual, as can be seen from this video. This is strong prima facie evidence that they lack self-awareness – and by implication, awareness of other individuals’ mental states. By contrast, as early as 18 months, half of all children recognize the reflection in the mirror as their own (Lewis, M. and Brooks-Gunn, J., Social cognition and the acquisition of self, New York: Plenum Press, 1979, p. 296). Very few animals are capable of passing the mirror test: humans, great apes, magpies, a very small number of Asian elephants, and possibly bottlenose dolphins, although researcher Gordon G. Gallup, who first developed the test in 1970, is doubtful. In any case, philosopher Michael P. T. Leahy maintains that mirror tests fail to demonstrate self-awareness in animals. In his provocative book, Against Liberation (Routledge, revised paperback edition, 1994), he remarks that all these tests show is that “the creatures recognise their own bodies” (p. 146). However, “for self-consciousness to get a foothold it would be necessary to show that they were aware of recognising themselves; which is awareness of a different order.”

Only humans can see the world from another individual’s perspective

Researchers Derek C. Penn and Daniel J. Povinelli have concluded that the ability to see the world from another individual’s perspective appears to be confined to human beings, and there is no good evidence that chimpanzees or any other non-human animals possess it:

The available evidence suggests that chimpanzees, corvids and all other non-human animals only form representations and reason about observable features, relations and states of affairs from their own cognitive perspective. We know of no evidence that non-human animals are capable of representing or reasoning about unobservable features, relations, causes or states of affairs or of construing information from the cognitive perspective of another agent. Thus, positing an fToM [folk theory of mind – VJT], even in the case of corvids, is simply unwarranted by the available evidence… (Penn and Povinelli, On the lack of evidence that non-human animals possess anything remotely resembling a ‘theory of mind’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 29 April 2007, vol. 362 no. 1480, pp. 731-744. See p. 737 for quote.)

In their 2007 paper, Penn and Povinelli proposed two carefully controlled experiments which could provide evidence of a “theory of mind” in non-human animals. Even adult chimpanzees who were used to interacting with human beings failed the first experiment (referred to in the paper as the opaque visor experiment and described on pages 737-739) proposed by the authors, whereas 18-month-old human infants passed the same test in flying colors. So much for the claim that chimps are as smart as three-year-old children.

Summing up the current state of animal cognition research, Penn and Povinelli conclude in their 2009 paper, On Becoming Approximately Rational: The Relational Reinterpretation hypothesis by Derek C. Penn and Daniel J. Povinelli (in S. Watanabe, A. P. Blaisdell, L. Huber and A. P. Young (eds.), Rational animals, irrational humans, Tokyo: Keio University Press, 2009, pp. 23-44):

…[A]lthough there is abundant evidence that apes and monkeys act as if they are taking the visual perspective of others into account (e.g., Flombaum & Santos, 2005; Hare et al., 2006), there is no evidence that they are actually representing or reasoning about others’ subjective visual experience as distinct from the observable behavioral cues causally related to others’ actions in the world (Penn & Povinelli, in press). Nor is there any evidence that nonhuman primates understand that others have a subjective visual experience analogous to their own (Povinelli et al., 2000).

All of the evidence collected to date suggests that chimpanzees only represent others’ goals and intentions in terms of external states of the environment and observable behavioral cues but do not understand that others have internal mental representations of goals and unobservable intentions which causally guide others’ behavior (cf. Tomasello et al., 2005). (Penn and Povinelli, 2009, PDF, pp. 17-18)

Regarding the alleged ability of some birds belonging to the crow family (corvids) to attribute mental states to other individuals, Penn and Povinelli argue that a more parsimonious interpretation of the evidence makes more sense:

In all of the experiments with corvids cited above, it suffices for the birds to associate specific competitors with specific cache sites and to reason in terms of the information they have observed from their own cognitive perspective: e.g. ‘Re-cache food if a competitor has oriented towards it in the past’, ‘Attempt to pilfer food if the competitor who cached it is not present’, ‘Try to re-cache food in a site different from the one where it was cached when the competitor was present’, etc. The additional claim that the birds adopt these strategies because they understand that ‘The competitor knows where the food is located’ does no additional explanatory or cognitive work. (Penn and Povinelli, 2007, p. 6)

Penn, Holyoak and Povinelli conclude that while corvids are highly remarkable birds, there is no evidence that they are aware of each others’ mental states:

The best evidence for a ToM [theory of mind] system in a non-primate comes from the work of Emery, Clayton and colleagues (Emery & Clayton 2001; 2004b; in press)…. Results such as these leave no doubt that corvids are remarkably intelligent creatures, able to keep track of the social context of specific past events, as well as the what, when, and where information associated with those events (Clayton et al. 2001). But nothing in the results reported to date suggests that corvids actually reason about their conspecifics’ mental states – or even understand that their conspecifics have mental states at all – as distinct from their conspecifics’ past and occurrent behaviors and the subjects’ own knowledge of past and current states of affairs (Penn & Povinelli 2007b; Povinelli et al. 2000; Povinelli & Vonk 2003; 2004). (Penn, Holyoak and Povinelli, 2008, p. 120)

In recent years, it has also been alleged that apes, corvids and chickadees possess the ability to plan for the future. I discussed and critically evaluated the evidence to date in my post, Do apes plan for the future? Why I’m skeptical (October 23, 2013).

In short: the evidence to date points to the existence of a profound qualitative difference between the mental abilities of human beings and other animals. What this suggests is that people really are in a moral and psychological category of their own, after all.

(Note: the image of a yellow labrador retriver dog at the top of this post is courtesy of user Elf and Wikipedia.)

21 Replies to “Guide dogs don’t know that their owners are blind

  1. 1
    Vishnu says:

    After many years of my own experiments with my own dogs (whom I adore emotionally, and who I do not begin to anthropomorphize), I must say, dogs do not have a theory of mind. They are wonderful, brilliant, at picking up cues. The best on earth, perhaps. But they have no theory of mind going on inside their heads. Sad but true.

  2. 2
    bornagain77 says:

    Of note:

    Jaytee: A dog who knew when his owner was coming home – video
    https://vimeo.com/81150973

  3. 3
    Mung says:

    But they have no theory of mind going on inside their heads.

    Lucky them.

    Sad but true.

    Perhaps it’s the human belief in “mind” that is sad.

  4. 4
    Robert Byers says:

    Dogs are dumb animals. They don’t know what sight is much less theor owners are blind.
    They just memorize doing the tricks of being sightseeing dogs.

  5. 5
    Moose Dr says:

    “dogs, like most animals, do not recognize themselves in mirrors, even after repeated exposure to mirrors. Instead, they treat the image they see in a mirror as if it were another individual”

    Balderdash!!

    Unless my dog is special, this is not correct. I remember the first time my dog encountered itself in the mirror. Its reaction was very much like that of the video. However, it reacted that way exactly once.

    Please understand, my dog never ever passes up the opportunity to bark and get excited when it sees another dog. Never. Whether the other dog is new or a frequent contact, my dog always reacts!

    However, when I show my dog the mirror, she seems to respond by looking away. It appears that the mirror confuses the dog. She seems to dislike the confusion. However, with the exception of that first time, she has never responded to the mirror image in the same way as she responds to sightings of real dogs.

    My guess is that my dog has interpreted the mirror image as an “apparition”, a false image, a ghost. I haven’t at all figured out how she interprets my image in the mirror.

  6. 6

    VJtorely:

    while guide dogs were capable of learning new ways of getting their owners’ attention, they do not understand that their owner cannot see them.

    Obviously, then, the dogs are behaving as if their blind owners can see them – which is to say that they possess this component of “theory of mind,” but apply it inflexibly. They fail to grasp that, unlike most of the other humans they have interacted with, their owners cannot see, which is very different than the assertion that they don’t in some sense understand seeing generally.

    Additionally, there is research that suggests other conclusions:

    Domestic dogs are sensitive to a human’s perspective

    Juliane Kaminski1,2,3), Juliane Bräuer2), Josep Call2) & Michael Tomasello2)

    Summary
    We investigated dogs’ ability to take the visual perspective of humans. In the main study, each of two toys was placed on the dog’s side of two small barriers (one opaque, one transparent). In experimental conditions, a human sat on the opposite side of the barriers, such that she could see only the toy behind the transparent barrier. The experimenter then told the dog to ‘Bring it here!’ (without designating either toy in any way). In the Back Turned control E also sat on the opposite side but with her back turned so that she could see neither toy, and in the Same Side control she sat on the same side as the dog such that she could see both toys. When toys were differentiable dogs approached the toy behind the transparent barrier in experimental as compared to back turned and same side condition. Dogs did not differentiate between the two control conditions. In a second study dogs were not sensitive to what a human had or had not seen in the immediate past. These results suggest that, even in the absence of overt behavioural cues, dogs are sensitive to others visual access, even if that differs from their own.

    Dogs steal in the dark

    Kaminski, Juliane1,2 ; Pitsch, Andrea2; Tomasello, Michael2

    All current evidence of visual perspective taking in dogs can possibly be explained by dogs reacting to certain stimuli rather than understanding what others see. In the current study, we set up a situation in which contextual information and social cues are in conflict. A human always forbade the dog from taking a piece of food. The part of the room being illuminated was then varied, for example, either the area where the human was seated or the area where the food was located was lit. Results show that dogs steal significantly more food when it is dark compared to when it is light. While stealing forbidden food the dog’s behaviour also depends on the type of illumination in the room. Illumination around the food, but not the human, affected the dogs’ behaviour. This indicates that dogs do not take the sight of the human as a signal to avoid the food. It also cannot be explained by a low-level associative rule of avoiding illuminated food which dogs actually approach faster when they are in private. The current finding therefore raises the possibility that dogs take into account the human’s visual access to the food while making their decision to steal it.

    —-

    More generally, there is other interesting research indicating that chimpanzees understand what others see and have seen. Hare, Call, Agnetta, and Tomasello (2000) designed a series of experiments that emphasized competition between conspecifics rather than cooperation with humans. Their design employed three adjacent rooms connected by guillotine doors. A dominant and a subordinate chimpanzee were each placed in outer rooms, and food was placed in the center room as the animals watched from under partially lifted doors. Each animal was also able to observe whether the other witnessed the food placement. In an initial series of trials, food items were placed at various locations in the center room as both chimps watched, after which the animals were released. In most instances the dominant animal typically took all the food it could see. However, in some instances one food item was placed in a location visible only to the subordinate animal, such as on her side of a small obstacle. The subordinate was released with a slight head start, forcing it to commit to a choice of food item before the dominant animal could provide behavioral cues regarding its initial choice. Hare et al. hypothesized that if the subordinate animal understood that the dominant could not see some food items, the subordinate would display preference for those items. Subordinates did indeed exhibit preference for items dominants could not see, suggesting that chimpanzees take note of what their conspecifics can and cannot see and predict behavior during competitive interactions on the basis of that understanding. Subordinate capuchin monkeys exposed to the same circumstances displayed no sensitivity to what their dominant conspecifics see, suggesting that such sensitivity is exclusive to the great apes

    The same investigators subsequently investigated whether chimpanzees understand what others know on the basis of what they have previously seen. Again, two visual obstacles were situated in the center room, and a food item was placed behind one of the obstacles such that it was visible to the subordinate animal but invisible to the dominant. Several experimental conditions were devised using this arrangement. In one condition both animals watched as the food was placed behind an obstacle. In a second condition the dominant animal’s door was closed as the food was placed. In a third condition both animals watched the food placement, after which the dominant animal’s door was closed and the food was moved to a second hidden location as the subordinate watched. In a fourth condition both animals watched the original placement and the subsequent repositioning of the food. In a fifth condition the dominant animal was permitted to witness the food placement, after which it was replaced by a second dominant animal that had not. In all conditions the subordinate animal was able to monitor the dominant animal’s visual access to the procedures. Hence, at the time of release, conditions differed only in that in the immediate past the dominant animal either had or had not observed the food being placed or moved as the subordinate animal looked on. Steps were again taken to ensure that the subordinate animal committed to a food item prior to the release of the dominant animal. Hare et al. hypothesized that if the subordinates were sensitive to what the dominant animal had or had not previously seen, and therefore knew, they would more often approach and retrieve a food item when the dominant was either uninformed or misinformed about its location. Once again, they found that the subordinate animals exhibited a clear preference for food items about which the dominants were uninformed or misinformed, and therefore behaved in a manner that indicated awareness of what their dominant cohorts saw and knew.

    Povinelli has striven for years, through very cleverly constructed research, to demonstrate that all findings regarding animal theory of mind can be accounted for by other forms of learning, e.g. operant conditioning, and you correctly convey his point of view. But many others, through equally clever research, have obtained findings that strongly challenge Povinelli’s view. I see confirmation bias in your selective consideration of the research; at the very least, the questions are not as settled as you imply.

  7. 7
    nightlight says:

    That’s not very different from the fact that people talking to blind will gesture or make facial expressions. Or at computer screens while watching videos, etc. While humans are in some ways unique, we’re creatures of habit, too.

    In any case, it is not clear how does any quirky trivia about animal deficiencies relative to humans, is more supportive of Intelligent Design as a scientific hypothesis, than a lack of such quirky differences would be. After all, the main trump card of ID for lower forms of life, such as cells, is how sophisticated and perfectly tuned their structures and behaviors are.

    But when the organisms get closer to humans, the argument suddenly flips into the opposite, seeking out examples and pointing how primitive and imperfect relative to humans these creatures are. Such examples of imperfection among higher organisms are being trotted out triumphantly with great regularity and fanfare here at UD, with the underlying message — gotcha, see, here is another proof that Bible is true. Or something like that.

    It’s all so typical for the incoherent, bordering on schizophrenic version of ID inflicted upon world by Discovery Institute, with its part time deity, quirkily jumping in and out, to meddle into the affairs of universe in order to fix the mess made by the universe it supposedly created perfectly, or to let it operate on its own by some imaginary childish view of “laws of science”.

    DI’s ID is doing more harm to ID as a science than anything neo-Darwinists could ever do directly. From all its net effects, it seems that DI, or at least that version of ID, is the neo-Darwinists’ Trojan horse, or false flag operation, put up to derail and discredit intelligent design as a scientific hypothesis.

  8. 8
    Moose Dr says:

    nightlight, “It’s all so typical for the incoherent, bordering on schizophrenic version of ID inflicted upon world by Discovery Institute…”

    Nightlight, you take on far too big of bite here. ID is schizophrenic, or more accurately DID (multiple personality). It is so because it is made up of many minds, each thinking for themselves. I agree with much of your originally stated premise: “In any case, it is not clear how does any quirky trivia about animal deficiencies relative to humans, is more supportive of Intelligent Design as a scientific hypothesis, than a lack of such quirky differences would be.” That said, I don’t believe that this is a foundational equation of ID, or of UD. It is the pet of a few of the independent minds that make up the movement.

  9. 9
    Joe says:

    Dogs and mirrors- why can’t it be that dogs just don’t understand the concept of a reflection and think that they are looking at their twin? Also there isn’t any smell from a reflection…

  10. 10
    Mapou says:

    Joe:

    Dogs and mirrors- why can’t it be that dogs just don’t understand the concept of a reflection and think that they are looking at their twin? Also there isn’t any smell from a reflection…

    I’ve always been suspicious of the mirror test as a valid test of self-awareness. I think dogs do understand their reflections and simply dismiss them as inconsequential. As you pointed out, dogs rely on smell for identification. Sounds are also extremely important to dogs. Roosters, by contrast, will put up a fight and attack the mirror. Chickens are fiendishly and famously stupid.

    Does this mean that I believe that animals are conscious? No.

  11. 11
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Reciprocating Bill,

    Thank you for the papers which you drew to my attention. While we’re on the subject of papers, here’s another one:

    Animal Cognition 2014 June 21. [Epub ahead of print]

    “Visual perspective taking by dogs (Canis familiaris) in a Guesser-Knower task: evidence for a canine theory of mind?” by M.E. Maginnity and R.C. Grace.

    Abstract

    We tested domestic dogs (N = 16) in a Guesser-Knower task in which they chose between possible locations for hidden food indicated by human informants. In four experiments, the perceptual access of the Guesser and Knower to the hidden food baiting was manipulated. When informants had differing perceptual access to the baiting, dogs preferred the location indicated by the Knower from the start of testing (Experiment 1), even when baiting was done by a third experimenter (Experiments 2-3). However, when there was no difference in perceptual access and both informants either knew or did not know the food location, dogs had no preference between the informants (Experiment 4). Controls ruled out alternative explanations in terms of associative learning, unintentional and olfactory cues. Analysis of individual data showed no significant heterogeneity across dogs, and results were not correlated with age or sex. Dogs’ performances were superior to those of nonhuman primates in previous studies. Although a mentalistic explanation is not required, results add to evidence that dogs have a remarkable sensitivity to cues related to humans’ attentional state, which enables them to respond as if they had a functional theory of mind in the Guesser-Knower task with human informants.

    There’s a good write-up on the experiment here:

    http://theclevercanine.wordpre.....y-of-mind/

    The blog author describes the experimental set-up and note that even in experiments designed to rule out associative learning by the dogs, the dogs showed only a weak preference (55 to 70%) toward the Knower as opposed to the Guesser. If they possessed a theory of mind, or for that matter a theory of vision, I would have expected a stronger bias than that.

    The blog author concludes the post on a balanced note:

    …[O]verall, this research suggests that dogs may have at least some level of Theory of Mind.

    Of course, there are always caveats! There may still be some associative learning being used by the dogs; perhaps they associate the baited jar with the person whose eyes were looking at the containers during baiting. Or, perhaps it’s possible that the experimenters gave small, but noticeable cues during the pointing. This possibility is actually more likely than you think. During last weekend’s SPARCS Conference, Dr. Simon Gadbois, who studies canine learning, motivation, and psychophysics, said that he has performed experiments where he realized that the experimenter was unknowingly sending cues to the dog, but even after watching hours of video of the experimenters’ body language, even Dr. Gadbois was not able to identify what those cues were.

  12. 12
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Reciprocating Bill,

    Here’s a good link to the experiment you mentioned (Juliane Kaminski, Andrea Pitsch, Michael Tomasello. “Dogs steal in the dark.” Animal Cognition, 2012; DOI: 10.1007/s10071-012-0579-6)

    University of Portsmouth. “Dogs may understand human point of view.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 February 2013.
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/re.....090840.htm

    Dr Juliane Kaminski, of the University of Portsmouth’s Department of Psychology, has shown that when a human forbids a dog from taking food, dogs are four times more likely to disobey in a dark room than a lit room, suggesting they take into account what the human can or cannot see…

    Dr Kaminski ran a series of experiments in varied light conditions. In each test, a dog was forbidden by a human from taking the food. When the room was dark, the dogs took more food and took it more quickly than when the room was lit.

    The tests were complex and involved many variables to rule out that dogs were basing their decisions on simple associative rules, for example, that dark means food.
    There is no evidence on how well dogs can see in the dark, but the results of this research show dogs can differentiate between light and dark.

    Dr Kaminski said: “The results of these tests suggest that dogs are deciding it’s safer to steal the food when the room is dark because they understand something of the human’s perspective.”

    Dogs’ understanding may be limited to the here and now, rather than on any higher understanding, Dr Kaminski said, and more research is needed to identify what mechanisms are controlling dogs’ behaviour.

    This is a more intriguing experiment than the one I mentioned above, because the dogs displayed a strong bias in their behavior. However, it would be rash to infer from this experiment that dogs understand that humans cannot see in the dark. What it seems to suggest instead is that dogs understand that things are invisible in the dark – which is quite different.

  13. 13
    vjtorley says:

    Moose Dr.

    Thank you for your post. You are correct in pointing out that while dogs initially react to their reflection in a mirror as though it were another animal, they soon lose interest in their reflection in the mirror. What they never grasp is that the image is a reflection of their own bodies. Here’s how dog expert Professor Stanley Coren, F.R.S.C., sums up the evidence:

    Young puppies encountering mirrors for the first time may treat the image as if it is another dog. They may bark at it, or give a little bow and an invitation to play as if they are encountering a real dog and engaging in a social interaction. However, after a short while they lose interest. Afterwards then often seem to treat their reflections as if they were of no consequence at all.

    Once again, thank you for the correction.

  14. 14

    VJ:

    However, it would be rash to infer from this experiment that dogs understand that humans cannot see in the dark. What it seems to suggest instead is that dogs understand that things are invisible in the dark – which is quite different.

    That strikes me as a distinction without a difference, as “invisible” means “unable to be seen.” To understand that things are invisible in the dark is to understand that they can’t be seen.

    I’ll pull down the paper itself, as the real meaning lies in the procedures.

    This does illustrate that this research is very difficult to do and often vexed by similar interpretive difficulties. The ingenious lengths to which researchers have gone to clarify these questions – at least to the point that factors such as operant learning can be controlled for – is truly impressive (I certainly include Povinelli in this).

    There can be no doubt that nonhuman primates lack the articulate, interactive, and culturally amplified theory of mind exhibited by even very young children, who use language richly populated with mental state terms as early as age 3 years. Yet many primates, especially the great apes, exhibit remarkable social and behavioral competencies. Among these competencies are gaze-following (geometrically quite sophisticated in chimps), understanding what others see and therefore know (as shown in the studies I cited above), “tactical deception” through misdirection of others’ attention, the discrimination of intentional versus unintentional actions, forms of referential pointing acquired in captivity, forms of imitation, and the rudimentary cultural transmission of behavior.

    Although these competencies do not add up to human theory of mind, I find the argument compelling that they reflect ancestral competencies (present in common ancestors of ourselves and other great apes) from which human theory of mind evolutionarily emerged, and without which that emergence could not have occurred. That there is a gulf between those ancestral competencies and human theory of mind reflects some 50,000 to 70,000 centuries of behavioral and cognitive evolution that can never be directly observed. (Must be invisible). At the very least, I see your above dismissal as unjustified.

    Somewhat ironically for this discussion, I don’t see findings vis dogs as compelling in their evolutionary implications as findings concerning primates, despite sometimes impressive skills dogs exhibit, because dog cognition (or “dognition,” as Brian Hare has come to call it), reflects 15,000 to 30,000 years of domestication, and hence selection for responsiveness to human beings.

  15. 15
    Mung says:

    I don’t find this at all surprising. Many humans are blind and don’t even know it.

  16. 16

    Here is the discussion section of the Kamiski paper (thank you, Dragon). I’ve omitted most of the references, as I don’t intend to type in the bibliography:

    Taken together, the results suggest that dogs take into account the intensity of light in the room when competing over food. The dogs steal significantly more food when it is dark compared to when it is light. However, dogs behavior while stealing forbidden food also depends upon the type of illumination in the room. Whether or not the human is illuminated does not affect dogs behavior. Seeing the human and particularly the human eyes is important information for dogs. This is supported by research showing that dogs steal significantly more food when the humans eyes are closed as opposed to open or the human is oriented toward the food or are you away from it. The current study, however, provides evidence that when deciding to steal food, dogs do not take the sight of the human (or the human eyes) simply as an aversive stimulus, which once visible, keeps them from stealing the food.

    Interestingly, the current study shows that what does affect dogs’ behavior is the level of illumination around the food. This also cannot be explained by a very low-level associative rule like, for example, always avoid illuminated food, as dogs actually approach illuminated food faster when they are in private. One possible high-level explanation could be that dogs understand that when the food (and therefore the area around it) is illuminated, the human can see them approaching and stealing the food. The current finding therefore raises the possibility that dogs take into account the human’s visual access to the food while making their decision to steal it. This would be in line with research for other species, which indicates that intensity of light might help for the purposes of determining when the other individual can or cannot see things.

    Research to date supports the hypothesis that dogs, like other mammalian species, understand when another individual’s line of sight is blocked. The current findings support the hypothesis that this evidence cannot just be explained by low-level accounts, such as seeing a human’s body parts as an aversive stimulus. Dogs also seem to react appropriately in more cooperative contexts where they have to decide whom to beg from: the human whose vision is obstructed, or the human who can see them.

    However, dogs’ understanding of seeing in humans seems to be limited and not as flexible as that of other species. This is because dogs do not seem to understand what a human has seen in the recent past (Kaminski et al. 2009). In that study dogs distinguished which toy to bring to the human based on the human’s current visual access to those toys. Upon the command to fetch, the dogs fetched a toy which was visible to the human through a transparent barrier significantly more in a condition where the experimenter and the dogs sat opposite each other than in a control condition where the dog and the human sat on the same side and thus had comparable access to both toys. However, in another condition of the same paradigm, two toys were placed behind opaque barriers such that the experimenter, sitting opposite the dog, had no visual access to either of the toys, while the dog saw both toys equally well. The experimenter then watched the placement of one toy, but not the other – thus she was knowledgeable about the location of one toy but ignorant about the location of the other. Interestingly, upon the request to fetch, the dogs did not distinguish between the two toys, contradicting the hypothesis that they can distinguish between knowledge and ignorance in other individuals.

    Therefore, it seems as if dogs’ understanding of others’ visual access may be limited to the present and may not go beyond Level 1 perspective taking. This is in contrast to other species. Chimpanzees, for example, not only understand when another’s line of sight is currently blocked or when they are not in a position to see things, but also understand knowledge and ignorance in others. The same is true for more distantly related species, like, for example, Scrub Jays, which, like chimpanzees, seem to understand others’ past as well as current visual access. This has led to the hypothesis that these species may have a flexible understanding of others psychological states, in particular an understanding of seeing in others. On the evidence of the present and other studies, we would not argue for that degree of flexibility in dogs, but more research is needed to identify the mechanisms behind dogs behavior.

  17. 17
    Joe says:

    Mapou- There are tool using crows out there. Then there are chimps who coordinate attacks on monkeys. And I have observed flying sparrows fold their wings back and glide through an opening in a chain-linked fence. These animals were obviously conscious and making intelligent decisions.

  18. 18
    Vishnu says:

    Moose Dr: I remember the first time my dog encountered itself in the mirror. Its reaction was very much like that of the video. However, it reacted that way exactly once.

    My dog did a similar thing with a mirror and with dogs and other animals on my high def TV. After a brief interaction, never was any more attention paid to them. None whatsoever.

    My guess is that they react that way because don’t smell anything from them. For dogs, it’s a “smell world.” No smell equals nothing worth bothering about after any visual element is investigated.

    It would be interesting to see what they would do if smells were introduced, their own and the smells of others, with regard to mirror images and television images.

  19. 19
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Reciprocating Bill,

    Thank you for your posts. You claim there is no meaningful difference between the statements “Dogs understand that humans cannot see in the dark” and “Dogs understand that things are invisible in the dark,” on the grounds that if a thing is invisible, it cannot be seen. That’s your understanding of invisibility, as an intelligent human being. A dog’s understanding might be like this: “A thing is visible if it has some color that makes it stand out from its surroundings. In the evening, things stand out less than they do in the daytime, and at night, nothing stands out at all.” There’s no reference to other minds or other perspectives in this primitive account.

    The paper by Kaminski et al. (“Dogs steal in the dark,” Animal Cognition, 2012; DOI: 10.1007/s10071-012-0579-6, which readers can view by going to http://www.reddit.com/r/scienc.....ly/c8f0weg ) from which you quoted was very fair-minded, and freely acknowledged that dogs’ understanding of seeing in humans is quite limited.

    However, there’s something about the experimental set-up which you forgot to mention, by the way. There were four different conditions tested in the first study:

    Food Dark/Human Dark: Both lamps were switched off so it was completely dark in the testing room
    Food Dark/Human Light: The lamp directed at the food was switched off, while the lamp directed at the experimenter was switched on
    Food Light/Human Dark: The lamp directed at the food was switched on, while the lamp directed at the experimenter was switched off
    Food Light/Human Light: Both lamps were switched on

    What were the results? “[D]ogs took the food significantly more often in the Food Dark/Human Dark condition compared to all other conditions… and significantly less often in the Food Light/Human Light condition compared to all other conditions… There was no significant difference between Food Light/Human Dark and Food Dark/Human Light conditions.

    And from the Discussion section of the paper:

    The dogs took the food signi?cantly more often when both locations (food and human) were in darkness compared to all other conditions. When there was only one location illuminated, irrespective of whether it was the human or the food, the dogs stole the food equally often. Dogs also hesitated signi?cantly longer in taking the food when it was illuminated (and therefore visible) than when it was not, while whether the human was illuminated or not had no effect on the dogs’ behaviour.

    Whether these results indicate that dogs understand that a reduced level of illumination hinders the human’s visual access to the food and therefore increases the chances of theft is as yet unclear.

    The fact that when there was only one location illuminated, the dogs stole the food equally often, irrespective of whether it was the human or the food, shows quite conclusively that the dogs do not understand what humans can and cannot see.

    I also found the following sentence from the study quite amazing, as it indicates how little we know about dogs:

    Unfortunately, there is absolutely no empirical evidence on how well dogs see in the dark. Every statement made is just guesswork based on the relative amount of ‘rods’ and ‘cones’ found in the retina…

    You mentioned gaze following in chimpanzees, which you described as “geometrically quite sophisticated.” To put this in perspective, I’d like to quote from an online paper titled, “A Review of Domestic Dogs’ (Canis Familiaris) Human-Like Behaviors: Or Why Behavior Analysts Should Stop Worrying and Love Their Dogs” by Monique A.R Udell and C.D.L Wynne (Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, March 2008; 89(2): 247–261, doi: 10.1901/jeab.2008.89-247), which shows that the gaze-following abilities of chimps are quite limited, and that dogs are in many ways smarter:

    Ever since Darwin (1859), the search for human-like social cognition (i.e., behavior controlled by human and conspecific social cues similar to that observed in humans) has focused on our closest genetic relatives, particularly chimpanzees. Though much remains controversial in this field, it seems clear that chimps and several other species of primates are only modestly successful on many tasks designed to test for human-like social reasoning. Thus, chimpanzees are only able to follow gaze and show joint attention under a limited set of conditions (Barth, Reaux, & Povinelli, 2005). In the object-choice task described above, few chimpanzees or other nonhuman primates are able to use gaze or other social cues such as pointing to identify the location of a hidden object (Call, Hare, & Tomasello, 1998; Call & Tomasello, 1998; Itakura, Agnetta, Hare, & Tomasello, 1999; Povinelli, Reaux, Bierschwale, Allain, & Simon, 1997; Tomasello, Call, & Gluckman, 1997). Successful individuals typically need dozens of repeated exposures to the cue, and show poor transfer after even small changes to the testing environment (Brauer et al., 2006; Call, Agnetta, & Tomasello, 2000; Itakura et al., 1999).

    Dogs, in contrast, though they share much less of our genetic material than do chimpanzees, nonetheless show a spontaneous ability to follow human gestures to find reinforcing objects, even in the absence of training in the laboratory. Most remarkably, even dogs raised with minimal human contact can follow a human point and gaze gesture without explicit training (Hare et al., 2005).

    Chimpanzees also have been the species most intensely studied for any ability to respond to the attentional state of humans or conspecifics—so-called “Theory of Mind” abilities. However, several published studies have failed to find any evidence of a sensitivity to another’s knowledge (e.g., Brauer et al., 2006; Povinelli & Eddy, 1996), and studies that do suggest this ability (e.g., Hare & Tomasello, 2004) have been subject to extensive criticism (e.g., Boesch, 2007; Heyes, 1998; Penn, Holyoak, & Povinelli, in press). Dogs, in contrast, respond readily to human cues in these kinds of tests (e.g., Brauer et al., 2004; Call et al., 2003; Gacsi et al., 2004).

    Chimpanzees have been by far the most intensively studied species for the comprehension of human language (including seminal studies by Gardner & Gardner, 1969; Savage-Rumbaugh et al., 1993; Terrace, 1979), but no peer reviewed paper has ever claimed the rapid “fast-mapping” of language acquisition found by Kaminski et al. (2004) in the dog Rico.

    Finally, I don’t mean to belittle non-human animals, and I’m quite sure that pets – especially cats and dogs – are sensitive creatures which are keenly attuned to the emotional states of their owners. But when someone tells me that pets have a theory of how the world looks from their owners’ perspective, the onus is on them to justify such an extraordinary claim. The experimental evidence to date supports the anti-Darwinian view that there are real, qualitative differences between the minds of humans and other animals – and that includes dogs and chimps, clever as they may be. We cannot speak of a continuum here.

  20. 20
    Mapou says:

    Joe:

    These animals were obviously conscious and making intelligent decisions.

    Making intelligent decisions is obvious because behavior is observed. However, being conscious is not something that can be observed. I often observe machines make intelligent decisions.

  21. 21

    VJ:

    A dog’s understanding might be like this: “A thing is visible if it has some color that makes it stand out from its surroundings. In the evening, things stand out less than they do in the daytime, and at night, nothing stands out at all.” There’s no reference to other minds or other perspectives in this primitive account.

    You miss a key point. The hypothesis is that the dog at some level understands that its own actions are observed during illuminated conditions, but not during dark conditions. Awareness of the possibility of observation, awareness that inhibits behavior, is awareness of a possible observer.

    With respect to the other conclusions vis dogs suggested by these studies, they can speak for themselves. As I earlier said, I don’t see find the implications of dog cognition compelling in their implications for human evolution, despite the sometimes impressive skills dogs exhibit, because dog cognition reflects some 15,000 to 30,000 years of domestication, and hence selection for responsiveness to and cooperation with human beings. I do find it strange that you dismiss clear experimental results on the basis your claim that the findings should have been even stronger. It does not follow from an hypothesis that dogs exhibit elements of theory of mind that they necessarily do so consistently or skillfully.

    Gaze-following occurs when one individual looks where another has been observed to look, as distinct from using another’s gaze, or another’s pointing, as a cue to the location of hidden reward. Chimpanzees notoriously poor at the latter tasks, but that doesn’t diminish the competencies they do possess, nor the evolutionary significance of those abilities. Adult chimpanzees are sensitive to eye-gaze as a cue to others’ attention, extrapolate another’s imaginary line of sight, appear to grasp that one’s line of sight can be screened by objects, and follow another’s gaze to a point outside their own immediate visual field, such as behind them. They also exhibit considerable skill in locating the exact terminus of another’s gaze, look past other interesting objects to find the target and recheck the other’s gaze if nothing interesting is found there. I think that is an astonishingly sophisticated ability. Moreover, while these skills are rare generally, they are relatively common in the primate clade. In addition to chimps and humans, gaze-following is displayed by orangutans, sooty mangabeys, rhesus macaques, stumptail macaques, and pigtail macaques, as well as cotton-top tamarins and capuchin monkeys.

    The studies examining chimpanzee awareness of what conspecifics see and have seen I described above (in comment 6) were devised in response to the hypothesis that Povinelli and Eddy employed an experimental paradigm that was unnatural to chimpanzees, in that it called for them to recognize a cooperative motive behind the human experimenter’s offer of food. This is an unusual situation because chimpanzees almost exclusively compete with one another for monopolizable resources such as foodstuffs. Hence Povinelli’s designs may have been dissonant with both the selection history of the chimpanzee and with their individual subjects’ previous food-related social experiences. Studies devised to examine these questions in a competitive setting have yielded much more positive results. Further, when dogs exhibit sensitivity to eye gaze and pointing as cues to hidden rewards that chimps lack, the difference may lie in millennia of selection for the capacity to enter into the cooperative and symbiotic relationships to which dogs have been subjected, both inadvertently and deliberately.

    That studies that draw implications vis theory of mind have been criticized is a good thing. Povinelli’s views have also been stiffly challenged. Even better are the many ingenious studies that have been devised by proponents of both viewpoints that attempt to clarify the pertinent issues, both conceptually and empirically. There has been an intense and healthy scientific exchange on the topic, the central questions of which have yet to be definitively answered. Your OP implies that the questions have been answered that and TOM is absent in animals other than human beings; as I said in my first comment, at the very least, the questions are not as settled as you imply. Quite the contrary.

    The experimental evidence to date supports the anti-Darwinian view that there are real, qualitative differences between the minds of humans and other animals – and that includes dogs and chimps, clever as they may be.

    Of course there are.

    We cannot speak of a continuum here.

    I disagree. Although the competencies of chimps discussed above do not add up to human theory of mind, I find the argument compelling that they reflect ancestral competencies (present in common ancestors of ourselves and other great apes) from which human theory of mind evolutionarily emerged, and upon which it was founded. It does not follow that chimpanzee and human TOM competencies are adjacent points on a continuum. Something like 50,000 to 70,000 centuries of behavioral and cognitive evolution separate us from our common ancestor. Many hominin species of varying cranial capacity emerged during that interval, some of which are our direct ancestors. It is across those lineages and those tens of thousands of centuries that the continuum lies.

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